cover image The British Surrealists

The British Surrealists

Desmond Morris. Thames & Hudson, $39.95 (248p) ISBN 978-0-500-02488-1

Contending that Surrealists “dislike having their work analysed,” painter Morris (The Artistic Ape) presents instead a delightful series of chatty “pen portraits” that highlights the lives of 34 prominent British artists working “in the period between the two great wars.” Through effervescent biographical sketches, personal anecdotes, and reproductions of their work, Morris, a notable Surrealist in his own right, reveals how each artist’s background and personality influenced their rejection of “the strict rules of the established art world” and pursuit of Surrealism as a way of life. Surrealist outlier John Tunnard (who detested the “bitchy in-fighting” of the St Ives’s school’s artistic scene), for example, expressed his “out-and-out” embrace of the movement through his “bizarre costumes” and theatrics. Eileen Agar, meanwhile, spent her days “revolt[ing] against convention” via such antics as “making love standing up in a hammock.” The influence of wartime is also felt: Francis Bacon incorporated images of the “tormented flesh” he witnessed in the London blitz into his paintings, while Edward Wadsworth hoarded his wartime egg rations for his preferred egg tempera technique. Throughout, Morris’s irreverent tone is balanced by serious and insightful details, making each profile feel at once indulgent and informative. Bringing his own knowledge to bear on his fascinating subjects, Morris offers a sweeping survey that’s surprisingly intimate. (June)